Will You Please Put Some Clothes On?

30 Oct 2011

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard (attributed), 1585.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
by Nicholas Hilliard (attributed), 1585.
I can only imagine the excitement and thrill of sitting for any one of the great portrait painters in history such as Bronzino, Velazquez, and Sargent. But then my mind goes directly to the most pressing question, what to wear?!

What a figure is wearing has a lot of bearing on the results of a portrait. I mean, the stiffness and regal stance of Elizabeth I as depicted by Nicholas Hilliard was not just the result of her being the regent of England. Her clothing all but forced her to stand in such a way—she was wearing pounds and pounds of fabric and a neckpiece that all but imprisoned her.

When painting portraits, an artist needs to reflect, on some level, the likeness of the sitter, but he or she also needs to take into consideration how they are depicting their subject, and that speaks directly to body position and the way a person is dressed. It doesn't make sense to paint an oil portrait of a person in street clothes standing ramrod straight with nose in the air, unless you are being ironical. In the same way, a portrait of a person in a business suit is instantly going to be evaluated by viewers as someone being seen in a professional role. A person curled up in a t-shirt and jeans on a couch calls to mind an entirely different context.

La Familia II (Sisters) by Tim Okamura, oil on canvas, 84 x 74, 2006.
La Familia II (Sisters) by Tim Okamura,
oil on canvas, 84 x 74, 2006.
And the more flamboyant or outrageous the costume in a portrait, the less likely I am to pay attention to the person first. That isn't to say that I won't take in the specifics of the person eventually, but visual interest is not something that comes equally to every part of a work of art. You have to know that one aspect is going to grab people's attention first, and decide on what you want that to be.

Knowing how to depict a person in anything from lounge attire to an intricate costume is an asset for those of us who really want to make the most of our figure painting. In Sketchbook for the Artist by Sarah Simblet, the artist not only discusses the minutiae of painting and drawing figures, but also how to depict costumes and clothing in interesting and eye-appealing ways. So don't hesitate to adorn your next portrait sitter with a glittery necklace or colorful headscarf. If the context can accommodate it, give it a try with the tips from Sketchbook for the Artist. You will be opening yourself up to working in new ways and only good can come of that. Enjoy!

P.S. In the honor of Halloween and all the outrageous costumes in artworks past and present, add a few of your favorite paintings that feature wild and crazy or beautiful and unique costumes or modes of dress to the online Costume Gallery I've created on Artist Daily. I've added a few of my favorites to start. Can't wait to see what we come up with!


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